Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Literature
Summary

Part 1 (lines 1–490)

Summary Part 1 (lines 1–490)

The author devotes a lot of space to describing the lavish, intricate details of the feast, including the guests, their clothing, and the hall itself. The knights and ladies of Arthur’s court are full of vitality and joy, resembling the New Year that they celebrate. The poet describes them as “fair folk in their first age,” and he uses words like fresh, lovely, comely, young, and mirthful to describe them (54). Later, the Green Knight echoes these descriptions but exaggerates them, calling Arthur and his knights “beardless children” (280). These descriptions of Arthur’s courtiers as children in their “first age” implicitly compare the court to humankind in its “first age,” before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The emphasis on the court’s youth and lack of experience suggests that these youthful people might be capable of failure, error, bad judgment, and sinfulness, just as Adam and Eve were.

The poet’s description of Queen Guinevere sitting on her dais, surrounded by exotic tapestries and jewels, suggests that the queen herself is first and foremost a beautiful object. The fact that Guinevere sits surrounded by tapestries from the far reaches of the earth supports the poet’s hyperbolic insistence that Guinevere’s beauty surpasses that of all women in the world. The poet does not touch on the moral or ethical aspects of Guinevere’s character—whether her exceptional body hides an ugly soul or enshrines a pure one remains for the reader to decide. However, any medieval reader would recognize Guinevere’s youthful beauty as the very thing that will later bring about the fall of Camelot: she is destined to betray her husband with Lancelot.

The Green Knight provides a less ambivalent commentary on Arthur and his courtiers by branding them inexperienced children in need of testing. At the same time, the Green Knight’s own character remains ambiguous, so we don’t know whether or not we can trust his judgment. The knight’s green costume and the holly bob he holds in one hand symbolize nature and fertility, but his costume is also ornamented with gold and he carries an axe, symbols of artifice and civilization. The Green Knight represents both the artificial and the natural worlds, and he seems to be a superhuman as well as a supernatural figure. These implications are confirmed when the Green Knight survives decapitation, showing himself to have the power of resurrection.

Gawain’s placement at the high table and his blood ties with Arthur characterize him as someone who maintains a high status among the knights of the Round Table. Yet, when Gawain steps forth to accept the Green Knight’s challenge, he claims he is the weakest of Arthur’s knights. Again, the author refuses to indicate whether Gawain’s self-deprecation stems from a real sense of his own inadequacy or whether it hides a kind of boastful knowledge of his own knightly stature. Many scholars of medieval chivalry believe Gawain’s behavior in this scene accords with the rules of knightly courtesy, but the poem gives us no commentary on Gawain’s motivations at this crucial plot juncture.

Although the Green Knight refers to his agreement with Gawain as a “game,” suggesting that the challenge is no different from any of the other games played by Arthur’s court, the Green Knight words his challenge like a legal contract. He refers to the agreement as a “covenant” and mentions dues, and he makes Gawain repeat the terms multiple times. The Green Knight’s language foreshadows the fact that the his game will have serious ethical implications; it will test not only Gawain’s bravery, but also his honesty and integrity.